I've enjoyed reading about and thinking about the Hornets, who return to Charlotte tonight to play the Bobcats. The Hornets went bad at the end the way a relationship goes bad. But in the early years there was an innocence about the team, and about our city, that we'll never see again. Sports get to be new only once.
Memories include Kurt Rambis, a member of the first Hornets team 20 years ago, playing one-on-one against David Thompson, who hoped to return to the NBA, at the Dowd Y. Thompson is remembered for his tremendous leaping ability, but his first step was as effective. He rocked in such a way that nobody could discern whether he was going left or right. Rambis tried. This was full-contact one-on-one. I suspect Rambis plays full-contact table tennis, too.
One of the all-time great Hornets to spend time around was Kenny Gattison. Classy, smart, accessible and quotable, he had a great basketball mind. He was a leaper out of college, but blew out his knee and became a rebounder and pick-setter and defender. Gattison is one of the rare people who made a court, locker room or city more interesting simply because he was there.
There were the stars, Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning. But there were also the players who filled in around them. Over the years they included Young Tony Bennett, now a highly regarded coach at Washington State who was such a youthful looking player that security guards wouldn't let him onto the court in Chicago. And it was a playoff game. I had to vouch for him.
Matt Geiger was a bright and eclectic guy who would throw a rubber ball to fans from the bench during timeouts on those occasions he was injured, which was often.
There were characters. Anthony Mason was an independent and interesting guy who had his own way of doing things and wasn't terribly interested in deviating. I was with him once when he was passing out produce to residents in selected Charlotte neighborhoods. We were in an old truck full of vegetables and somehow he caught the eye of a woman in a passing car on Tryon St. and they exchanged telephone numbers. Nobody played basketball the way he did.
An assistant coach once expressed sadness about cutting a player. You like the player that much? No, the coach said. He was going to miss seeing the player's girlfriend, who regularly attended home games.
Vernon Maxwell dropped in to play 31 games. I knew he had talent; i hadn't realized how much. I wonder how good he could have been if he had committed to the game.
J.R. Reid was a guy with which I could talk boxing. Malik Rose, who is still in the league, was a testament to effort. Who can forget Jeff Sanders? All right, I have forgotten Jeff Sanders.
I had wars over the years with George Shinn, who owned the Hornets. But I spent time with him a few years ago in New Orleans. He's found himself again. Fans like him; they see him as one of them. I like him, too. He always wanted to contribute to the community, ours and now New Orleans. He wanted to give back. Also, he returns telephone calls. I wish him continued good luck.
It is the first team, the team that celebrates its 20th anniversary this season, we've been writing about. There was a lack of pretension; everybody, the athletes, the fans, the media, figured it out as we went along.
I asked Dell Curry, who played on that first team and become one of this city's favorite athletes, if he knew what they had -- in the locker room and in the relationship with this city. He said he did not.
None of us did.